Wednesday March 19, 2008

Ecosystems of Failure.

A brief conversation in the car ride down to SXSW brought to my mind a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. We were discussing the lucrative opportunities and pay offered to individuals who are experienced in simply installing and configuring a certain piece of behemoth enterprise software. It was proposed that if this software was designed better, the jobs of these “configurers” might be much less valuable.

Which led me to recount to my captive audience a scene in the movie The Fifth Element. Simply put — for those unfamiliar with the movie, Cornelius (Ian Holm) is a good guy and Zorg (the wonderfully slimy Gary Oldman) is a bad guy. Cornelius finds himself in Zorg’s office, and Zorg is attempting to explain to him what it is that he does for a living (short answer: he sells weapons). He gestures around his office, pointing out how still and boring it is. Then he knocks a glass of water off his desk, triggering a small army of droids who scurry out to clean up the mess. Zorg explains to Cornelius that by creating a little destruction, he has given purpose and work to all the little droids. Aw, what a swell guy.

Sometimes I look around at the state of software, and systems in general, and wonder if they are run by Zorgs. Or perhaps the chaos began by human fallibility, but now the mess is willfully maintained in order to feed this ecosystem that thrives on the system failure. Do companies actually put overly complex, mildy destructive products out into the market, intentionally giving rise to and continuing to feed an ecosystem of other companies that thrive on repairing the damage? Are some systems designed to be so irritating and complex that whole industries must be erected to make sense of it (*cough* taxes)? Is broken the preferred state for the makers of some products and systems we interact with every day? And does the ecosystem have the power to perpetuate the failure, supplanting the creator’s will to rectify the problems?

Just some thoughs.


Chris Merritt » 4932 days ago #

There’s no doubt in my mind :-\

Nathan Smith » 4932 days ago #

Amen. Nothing further to add. So true, yet rarely talked about. Reminds me of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Only the innocent child had the gall to point out the obvious truth.

chuck » 4932 days ago #

Great way to explain the concept. I couldn’t agree more.

Larry » 4932 days ago #

Very well put.

Alex Giron » 4932 days ago #

That’s an awesome way to explain the issue. BTW, it wasn’t Corbin Dallas who was in Zorg’s office, it was the priest. :)

Jeff Adams » 4932 days ago #

I sense a hint of a conspiracy theorist in you Jared. It does bring up an interesting thought though. Once one has created these overly complex, intentionally or not, systems does one eventually fix it knowing that it could potentially put the “configurers” out of a job.

Jared » 4932 days ago #

Alex – Whoops! Editing. ;)

Matt Donovan » 4932 days ago #

It’s certainly plausible (even a little romantic?). It seems like the behemoth organization is trying to change much faster than organizations its size tend to move. As soon as it gets people organized around something, the world has changed gears and it has to catch up, so nothing ever really gets taken care of – not in any relevant way.

While I doubt the behemoth is consciously sustaining the ecosystem of failure, I’m willing to bet sqarshing it ain’t on his tada list.

Jeff Adams » 4932 days ago #

Found this on the IMDB trivia listing for this movie:

Zorg’s monologue about destruction creating productivity is actually a classic economics fallacy exposed in “The Parable of the Broken Window” by economist Frederic Bastiat.

Jared » 4932 days ago #

That’s interesting, Jeff. I read the whole Bastiat theory on Wikipedia (the source of all truth :/). Interesting stuff.

Kevin Potts » 4929 days ago #

Jared —

Great post. I have two comments, or maybe more, depending on how long I write. First, great movie reference; The Fifth Element is a personal favorite.

Second, you’re absolutely correct about enterprise software being difficult to install, but that’s because of several reasons. It depends on the company, of course, and the scope of the integration; companies like Oracle, Cerner and Hyland can easily take years to finalize a deployment, and even then it might not work correctly. Their software is designed to be enterprise-ready from the get-go — there is no consideration of scalability from one department to the entire organization, it’s just a huge pile of complicated shit the customers and their assigned consultants have to sift through.

Also, it is important to understand that in the enterprise software market (and my expertise lies in ECM software), vendors make their money through services. (In the same way movie theaters make little on tickets but gouge people for the concessions.) Typically, the actual cost of the product (the software and the supporting hardware) is dwarfed by the endless hours racked up by on-site consultants — I have seen cases of 1:10 ratio in favor of services.

Finally, this complexity has lead to a new generation of companies who understand — on very fundamental, economic level — that this needless complexity (both in installation and in end-user adoption) is just bad business. These companies (such as Perceptive Software, who I work for) go head-to-head with the likes of Hyland and IBM and win because their integration is fast (days) and their services cost is incredibly low (I’ve seen services run one-fifth the cost of actual license fees).

So the market is changing for the better, and even analysts like Forrester are starting to notice.

Sorry for the long post.

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